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Policy and Practice: Reflections on the Principalship

By Greg Mullenholz
Communicator
November 2015, Volume 39, Issue 3

“Is this how it’s supposed to look?” Russella Davis-Rogers of the U.S. Department of Education (USED) uttered these words in hushed, yet excited tones in reaction to a fourth-grade math lesson we had just observed. Russella was visiting the school I lead, Ashburton Elementary in Bethesda, Maryland, as part of USED’s “Principal Shadowing Week,” an opportunity for federal policymakers to get a hands-on glimpse into the world of a school principal. The purpose of the event is to get policymakers out of their offices and into school buildings to gain insight into the realities of schooling. The requirement was simple: the policymaker does everything the principal does, no matter what. Whether enrolling three new students, managing a brief power outage, consoling a student who left his sweater on the bus, visiting classrooms, or accepting the gift of a live worm from a kindergarten student on the playground, she had to do everything I did. I felt anxious and vulnerable about having a federal policymaker shadow me as I went about my morning—especially as I was only four months into the job.

Russella gained insight on the paradoxical role of the principalship: they must be multitaskers, but also focus deeply on everything they do. Russella shadowed me as I observed a fourth-grade math class. For me, the observation was a part of the required formal evaluation process and an opportunity to analyze a teacher’s practice with the goal of collaborative reflection and feedback targeted to professional growth. For Russella, the observation was an opportunity to see the Common Core State Standards in practice. 

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Throughout the morning, Russella pressed me for insights into the role of the principal. She must have exclaimed, “Wow!” 1,000 times, a verbal reaction to the fantastic instruction delivered by teachers and recognition of the job that principals are asked to do.

As the morning continued, Russella’s question struck a chord with me. Is this how it’s supposed to look? Is this how the job of the principal is supposed to look? A job that is so involved and so rewarding that when I arrive home at night and my wife, a teacher, sees the grin on my face and asks me how my day was, I am without words to form a response. The days are long and the job is tough, but I was well prepared to assume this role and am held to high standards each day that I come to work.

In Montgomery County Public Schools, where I did my principal preparation residency, candidates spend, at minimum, two years as an assistant principal. During this time they are supported by a team of four school-level and system-level leaders, including an effective current principal, with additional support being provided by central office leaders. Now that I am a practicing principal, I continue to learn and feel well-supported. The district, which helped to develop me, places both great trust in me and great expectations on my performance.

Preparation Is Key
The education community has spent a tremendous amount of time and energy researching what an effective principal is and how to evaluate principals’ performance, with far less attention paid to how to effectively prepare them for the rigors of school leadership. NAESP recommends aspiring principals complete, at minimum, a year-long “pre-service residency that includes coaching from an effective principal.” Many districts—considering this type of minimal investment to be a luxury—do not provide the experience to principals as they assume the role.

Residency programs are the sincerest reflection of what a system values in its school leadership. The investment in capacity development nets positive life outcomes for students and increased effectiveness in teachers, with research indicating that effective principals can help to raise the achievement of students in their schools by two to seven months in a single school year. Residency programs develop an internal pipeline of principals who will lead our schools and students to higher achievement. The model can be expensive, but failure to invest in school leadership comes at a much higher cost.

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It is often stated that the profession of education should be elevated to the level of law and medicine. In comparison, education leaders lack a rigorous, profession-wide residency approach. Deficient preparation leaves principals on their own and without the supports and capacities necessary to lead change. With principals across the country are facing increased demands and smaller budgets, the profession is experiencing diminishing retention rates. Currently, 50 percent of new principals leave the profession after their third year. States have an opportunity to invest and support the development of effective principals by facilitating recruitment, incentivizing individuals to aspire to the principalship through compensation and other methods, and supporting  programs that demonstrate that they are producing effective school leaders.

Am I worried that I’ll fall victim to the retention trend and not last beyond my third year? The answer is “No.” I was prepared well for a job that I love. My preparation experience didn’t make me a perfect principal, but it ensured that I approach every single day as a learning leader, one who continues to refine his craft with each classroom visit, each lunch bunch with a student, and each interaction with a parent. Is this how the principalship is supposed to look? With principal residencies, the answer is a resounding, “Yes!”

Greg Mullenholz is principal of Ashburton Elementary School in Bethesda, Maryland.

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